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Startup seeks to bring solar to the masses with device

“Going solar” could mean something very different in consumer lexicon come March, when the Albuquerque-based startup SunPort begins full commercial sale of its proprietary plug-in device for bizO-RobinsonAvila_Kevin_BizOconsumers to convert their energy use to solar power.

The startup, which launched in 2013, developed the device in combination with an online tracking system to allow people to automatically measure the electricity they use and turn that consumption into direct support for solar energy. They do that by paying a little extra for the power they consumed while using the SunPort. The company then applies that revenue toward purchase of “solar renewable energy credits,” or solar RECs, that are sold on the open market to compensate solar generating plants for the electricity they produce.

That, in turn, pumps money back into the solar industry to finance more solar generation while offering consumers a way to directly support renewable energy development without having to spend thousands of dollars for their own rooftop solar systems, said Nick Williams, SunPort co-founder and director of information systems.

“SunPort is the simplest way conceived of to measure and match your energy usage with solar electricity,” Williams said.

Grabbing attention

The concept has begun to grab industry and media attention, as well as early support among

enthusiastic consumers, even before SunPort’s official commercial launch. The device has been featured in national media, including reviews by MTV and Forbes magazine, which in October included the SunPort device as No. 1 on a list of solar-powered or solar-related tech gadgets for consumers.

The company also won a pitch competition in Las Vegas, Nev., in October that earned it a free booth at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in January. And SunPort raised $120,000 through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign last summer.

That bodes well for future sales by the company, which is now in final stages of safety certification at the Chinese factory that SunPort contracted to build its device, said company founder and CEO Paul Droege. That certification process will be finished in a few weeks.

“We don’t have a formal product yet ready to ship until we complete the process, just beta units that we’ve supplied on a limited basis,” Droege said. “We’ve been taking pre-orders for delivery for when factory production gets turned on. We’ll begin shipping product to consumers by March of next year – which is what we promised to supporters in our Kickstarter campaign – and we’re solidly on track now to meet that goal.”

How it works

Droege and a colleague, Don Hicks, are the original brains behind the SunPort concept. Droege is founder and owner of Designed Power, an Albuquerque company that sells electric power equipment to industrial and commercial entities in New Mexico and West Texas. Hicks is a longtime colleague at Designed Power.

They conceived of a software platform to track energy use that could be converted to solar generation through REC purchases. That evolved into the SunPort plug-in measuring device and an accompanying smartphone app that sends the measurements back to the company, which then matches the electric consumption with an equivalent number of RECs.

The measuring device itself is just a palm-sized cube that can plug into any three-pronged wall outlet. Any device, such as a laptop, can then be plugged into the SunPort, which measures that specific device’s electric consumption. The device uses a Bluetooth connection to transmit the measurements to the smartphone, which relays that information to the company.

The SunPort team spent 2013 and 2014 building the tracking system and device, including design of a measurement scale to tally the electricity use of any specific device.

That can be complicated, because the electricity consumed must be converted into an equivalent number of solar RECs.

The problem is, RECs are generally sold in wholesale proportions, bundled into hundreds or thousands for sale on the market, Williams said.

“It’s like buying a tanker of gas at a gas station,” Williams said. “You can’t buy just one gallon, so we buy it in bulk and distribute it individually to users.”

So, SunPort came up with a scale based on units it calls SunJoules. Each REC purchased by SunPort represents the equivalent of 3.6 million SunJoules.

“We measure electricity use in SunJoules until each REC is used up,” Williams said. “Each REC represents electricity that was produced by a solar generating station on given dates, so each individual’s energy consumption is actually being matched with production.”

Until now, only utilities and big industry players such as Google and Apple have bought RECs in bulk to offset electricity consumption from fossil fuels, Williams said. The SunPort system can bring solar energy to the masses.

Of course, in terms of measuring real consumer buy-in, the rubber won’t hit the road until commercial launch next March, when the SunPort measuring device will be sold for $80 per plug.

That initial charge will provide sunjoules for a year of use.

After that, subscribers can purchase more SunJoules for a discounted price yet to be determined.

“The $80 … for us, covers the cost of the physical plug and all the matching software, and gives the consumer a way to buy RECs and finance solar projects,” Williams said. ” Our profit is what’s left over. But it’s still too early to determine our margins yet.”

Check in, plug in

Apart from the plug-in tracking device for individual consumers, SunPort has established a sister company, StaySolar LLC, to manage special contracts with hotels that want to provide a solar option for guests.

Hotel Santa Fe signed on with StaySolar last January as the first paying client. Under that one-year contract, the hotel agreed to convert electricity consumed by guests based on room nights sold each month, amounting to between $40,000 and $50,000 since January, said Corey Fidler, the hotel’s general manager.

But the hotel declined to renew its contract on Dec. 1, because it saw little enthusiasm among guests for the program, which cut into the hotel’s bottom line.

“We just ended up paying more for power at the hotel with minimal response from our guests,” Fidler said. “That was the deciding factor for us not renewing with StaySolar.”

StaySolar is now altering its strategy to make it more attractive to hotels. That could include offering guests the option of StaySolar service as a hotel amenity at check-in rather than simply providing it for all customers.

“We originally conceived of it as a room-by-room demand configuration, but Hotel Santa Fe decided to just do it for the whole hotel,” Droege said. “We’re now testing to see if an on-demand version could work better with other hotels.”

Giving back

Meanwhile, SunPort has set up a nonprofit organization, ReChoice, to give back to the community through grants for special solar projects.

ReChoice manages the company’s REC purchases and it makes a dollar-for-dollar match on SunJoule sales for charitable endeavors.

ReChoice made its first donation in November: A $10,000 rooftop solar system at Mandy’s Farm – a local nonprofit in Albuquerque’s South Valley that provides services to people with disabilities.

The solar system will help Mandy’s Farm maintain an indoor heated pool that is used by about 150 clients, said Mandy’s Executive Director Melissa McCue.

To date, Droege has invested between $1 million and $2 million to build SunPort, StaySolar and ReChoice, Williams said.

The company, which will now seek venture backing to grow, currently employs seven people at a 3,000-square-foot office in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.

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